A couple of days before we left India, I took a day-trip to Varanasi (a.k.a Benares or Banaras). It was a work-related trip and I, perhaps unwisely, had volunteered for it. But I had my reasons.
I had wanted to see the Ganges ever since I remember myself. When I was in pre-school, I, like most kids, loved fairy tales but had a special place in my heart for fairy tales from far away lands. My mother indulged me and got me translated fairy tales from various European countries, Japan and Africa which I thought were really cool. One day she brought home a beautifully illustrated book of what I thought were Indian fairy tales. I ran across the book recently and realized that it was actually stories from the Mahabharata (one of the great Indian epics, translated from French, no less). I loved that book so much that my mom eventually grew tired of reading it to me over and over, so she recorded herself reading the stories using a tape recorder. I couldn’t read yet but this way I could play the stories on demand without her needing to be right there. I thought that was the awesomest thing ever (even the parts where my mom was struggling with the super long Indian names). The stories in the book were about kings and queens and princes and princesses and gods and goddesses and demons and the like but they also talked a lot about the mighty Ganges and I naturally wanted to see this amazing river. I blame that book and my mother for my
obsession fascination with India.
So, I couldn’t imagine leaving India without seeing the Ganges. It’s one of the largest rivers in the world and is enormously important to India (and Bangladesh). Varanasi is located in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and millions of people (farmers, fishermen, traders, etc.) depend on the Ganges for their livelihoods. Many historically significant cities and towns, monuments and temples were built along the river.
The Ganges is the most sacred river to the Hindus and Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism. Hindus from all over the world flock to Varanasi because they believe that immersing themselves in the Ganges will wash their sins away. They also believe that dying in Varanasi will bring them salvation, so many Hindus go there to die while others take their loved ones’ remains there for cremation and immersion in the Ganges.
I had been plotting to take a trip to Varanasi the whole time we were in India but it is not a good place for those uncomfortable with death like our kids. Plus, the city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world - crowded, bustling with activity and well, not pristine. The river, as sacred as it is, is very polluted by farming, industry, overpopulation and sewage. So while I wanted to go, I knew it was not a place we would enjoy as a family. So up until about a month before we left India, it looked like a trip to Varanasi was not happening.
Then it turned out that at work we needed an FSO go to Varanasi to visit an incarcerated U.S. citizen. I knew it was going to be only day-trip and just a couple of days before our departure from India, when I would have a million of other things to worry about but I volunteered for it because it was my last chance to see Varanasi.
I was accompanied by one of my Indian colleagues on the trip. We took a morning flight to Varanasi and got there about 10 a.m. We had to take care of business first, of course. The U.S. citizen we had to visit was actually held in a mental institution, so it was a hard and sad visit but I can’t talk more about it because I have to protect the person’s privacy.
By the time we finished the work visit, it was noon, so we went to have lunch at the Suria Hotel, which came recommended by another Indian colleague. The colleague who accompanied me on the trip had never been to Varanasi before either. We both wanted to go to the Ganges and just walk around but our driver had other plans. He knew a guide (they always do) and insisted that we use him, so we did.
We had only a couple of hours before we had to be at the airport for our flight back to Delhi, so in hindsight, having a guide was not a bad idea. We wouldn’t have seen as much without him but of course, like every guide, he had to insist that we go see his uncle’s sarees . He said the family owned a saree factory. The Benarsi sarees are famous, so we obliged but that cut into our already short sight-seeing time. Plus the uncle’s prices were really high, so we didn’t buy anything but it was neat to go to the guy’s home and look at beautiful sarees.
Here are some scenes I captured in a hurry during my very short time in Varanasi:
A typical intersection
The wedding invitation wala (guy) – weddings are a huge business in India and so are wedding invitations. Some of them are really elaborate and expensive. They can be up in the hundreds of dollars each for the really posh weddings.
The Ganges at the Nepali Temple, one of the thousands of temples in Varanasi. I was there in late August, during the rainy season, so the river was really high. See those umbrellas – they look like they are 2/3 under water.
Our guide told us photography was not allowed beyond this point at the ghats (the areas of the river bank where the cremation grounds are) out of respect for the dead. He also told us that the cremation grounds had been closed for several days because of the heavy rains. The water had been so high that the areas where the cremations take place had been under water. The water had gone down enough on the day of our visit for the cremation grounds to reopen, so there were many funeral pyres burning at the ghats and many more families waiting for their turn to cremate loved ones. Our guide took us to the structure behind the fire wood, which he said was a shelter for dying people who have nowhere else to go. It is maintained by charitable donations and doesn’t really have anything inside – no beds or any other furniture but I guess it protects the destitute from the elements until it’s their time. We watched the burning pyres from there for a while. It was sad and sobering to see the people in there and the burning pyres but it’s very much part of daily life in Varanasi. Then it was time to go back.
In a way, Varanasi seemed like the essence of India. Pretty much everything you have heard about India, including some unbelievable and crazy things, is there but magnified. The smells, the sights and the emotions they generate are intense. Being there is a sensory overload. It’s like an India concentrate or India on steroids, if you will. Either that or I was just emotional about leaving India and that made everything in Varanasi feel so intense to me. In any case, a couple of hours was entirely not enough (though it’s definitely better than none) and I look forward to going back and spending more time in Varanasi. One day…